Energy Transition Insights From a Mega-Trove of Power Plant Data

February 14, 2024
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A vast array of data about electric power generation, which is at the heart of debates about the U.S. energy transition, can be found through the Energy Information Administration. Above, the coal-fired Bowen power plant, one of the largest in the nation, outside of of Atlanta, Georgia. Photo: U.S. Department of Energy, via Flickr Creative Commons (United States government work).

Reporter’s Toolbox: Energy Transition Insights From a Mega-Trove of Power Plant Data

By Joseph A. Davis

Second of two parts on energy data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Read part one

Electric power plants are hugely important to environmental journalists and the communities they cover. Their emissions have been a key environmental concern for decades and they currently are responsible for a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gases.

So, many reporters will want to know about a very solid set of electricity generation data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, which is part of the Department of Energy. 

The dataset is part of a huge trove of EIA data products about electrical power generation. A decade ago all that data was key to understanding power plant pollution. Today it is key to understanding the energy transition.


Where the data comes from

We are talking specifically about the data the EIA collects from something called Form EIA-860. 

In case you’re wondering what in the world a Form EIA-860 is … Well, federal law gives the EIA the authority to require electricity generators to submit data; that’s what Form EIA-860 collects. 

And that’s also why we think the data is audited and complete. Start looking at it here

The EIA has other databases on electric generation by the way. For example, there’s one derived from Form EIA-923 that focuses on plants fired by fossil fuels.


How to use the data smartly

The nice thing about EIA-860 data is that it includes both fossil fuels and a wide range of renewables: coal, gas, oil (petroleum liquids), petroleum coke, wood (biomass), nuclear, geothermal, hydro, solar photovoltaic and storage. 

Basically, it includes all U.S. electricity sources with outputs above a minimal threshold.


EIA-860 data allows you

to analyze the trends

in the energy transition.


This allows you to analyze the trends in the energy transition. You can explore various time series, too, because there is a long record of annual (and sometimes even monthly) data.

Because it tells you the thermal output of individual fossil fuel plants, it also tells whether those plants should be regulated as a “new source” (with tighter pollution control requirements) under the Clean Air Act (although this information is becoming less important as coal plants are shuttered and the regulations change).

The EIA aggregates and analyzes this data itself and publishes it in several forms — such as its U.S. Energy Atlas (which puts it in map form), its Monthly Energy Review and its Annual Energy Outlook. The atlas is more useful if your reporting concern is regional, state or local. 

You may also find the EIA’s Electricity Data Browser a useful tool; it is a customizable query engine.

There are other sources of electricity data if you want to put the U.S. situation in an international context. Some of it is from the EIA itself. Analogous data can be found via the International Energy Agency.

Are climate consequences your main concern, rather than just the electricity itself? 

Then you should also explore the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks. While it is more comprehensive in climate terms, some of the numbers in the inventory are based on models and estimates.

[Editor’s Note: Part one of this two-part series on EIA data covers its Renewable Electricity Infrastructure and Resources Dashboard. Plus, be sure to visit our Topic on the Beat: Energy page and get the latest EJToday headlines on energy.]

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 9, No. 7. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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